Archive for September, 2009

Hidden in Plain Sight by Ellis Amdur

Monday, September 7th, 2009

Last night I finished reading Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei’s Power by Ellis Amdur. It was a fascinating and frustrating read. Fascinating because Ellis Amdur is a very experienced martial artist with broad experience who has studied the historical documents of Japanese martial arts with particular emphasis on arts that influenced Aikido. He writes in an engaging style that kept my interest all the way through. In fact it is the first book in a long time that kept me up late reading. It was frustrating because the book seems to promise new insights that might change the focus of my training but in the end the book only confirmed for me the choices that I have made in my Aikido training.

The central focus of the book is the “lost” emphasis on internal training in Aikido that gave O Sensei his seemly super human strength. I can see why Amdur feels that this aspect has been lost in modern Aikido in that when Ueshiba Sensei first started teaching he was able to convince skilled martial artists in a moment that they had much to learn from him. Today, it is an unusual Aikido teacher that can command that respect from other martial artists. In a time when you can watch mixed martial arts competition almost every day on TV and movies are filled with fantasy images of violence, the standard practice of Aikido seems quaint and unrealistic. It takes significant education for someone to see the practical applications of the forms and generally people are brought into Aikido on the promise of a new age notion of harmony rather than a serious physical training in controlled violence. I myself came seeking enlightenment, not really realizing how physical the training would turn out to be.

Having trained for many years, however, I do not consider the concept of power, both external and internal, to be lost from modern Aikido. The fact that a majority of students don’t develop the unusual abilities that were documented in both Takeda Sokaku and Ueshiba Morihei should not be a surprise. They were highly unusual in their time and one should expect that those abilities would still be unusual today. However I have experienced directly very sophisticated application of both external and internal power on the mat with senior students and teachers within the United States Aikido Federation. Taking falls for Donovan Waite Sensei was like riding a powerful wave, yet always safe because of the stability his stance and posture. Sugano Sensei had incredible strength that I rarely experienced directly because he technique led uke to the ground rather than forced them, but I remember him demonstrating kaeshi-waza where I was supposed to preform ikkyo on him. Feeling his extremely muscular arm that contained effortless power, I realized that there was no way that I could control his arm at all. Harvey Konigsberg Sensei used extremely subtle movements to take uke’s balance, even very strong people that were actively trying to resist.

There is much in Hidden in Plain Sight that repeats the common disdain for modern Aikido, particularly the Aikido of Ueshiba Kisshomaru, that is common for practitioners of Daito-Ryu, Iwama Aikido, and koryu (classical japanese martial arts). This tendency is distasteful to me and makes me feel defensive. Ellis Amdur softens these criticisms, but often in back handed ways. He honors Ueshiba Kisshomaru for spreading Aikido around the world while saying that he blunted the techniques and failed to demonstrate the physical power of his father. Ellis Amdur repeats the odd fallacy that there are too few techniques in the Aikido of Aikikai. I have always been confused by this idea; every teacher that I have met within the Aikikai world teach different curricula and I often wish that I had taken notes of all the techniques that I have seen. Admittedly, these are often variations on a theme of a small number of techniques,  but this variety goes beyond the “standard” set of techinques that Amdur lists (ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo, iriminage, kokyunage, kaitenage, koshinage and jujinage). However Donovan Waite Sensei taught innumerable pinning and choking techniques. Kanai Sensei’s teaching includes many throws that are outside of the normal set of kokynage techniques others teach. In fact, kokyunage is such a broad category of techniques on its own that the term is almost meaningless. Yamada Sensei talks about “unnamed techniques” as being as large a category in Aikido as those listed in testing requirements. The fact that Ueshiba Kisshumaru and the current Doshu show only the most basic techniques in demonstrations is not a limiting factor on the huge variety of expressions held under the umbrella of the Aikikai. I see their demonstrations as representing their duty to maintain a consistent public face of Aikido, rather than to exhaust the possibilities.

So what is the “lost” secrets of internal power revealed in this book? Misogi training, taking hard ukemi and weapons training. This is a gross simplification of the thesis, but I believe the other elements that are discussed are no more hidden or lost than these. I start every class I teach with torifune and furitama (rowing and shaking exercises), just as many other teachers I’ve trained with do. In my own dojo, Darrel Tangman Sensei first taught me the form and later I experienced Sugano Sensei’s method (only subtly different). I would say that most students in the USAF are familiar with these exercises as well as focused breathing and empty meditation practice that Amdur mentions. No, I have never meditated under a waterfall, but I consider this a practical matter rather than an oversight in my training (the only times I’m near appropriate waterfalls is when I’m on vacation with my family). As for the empowerment meditative practices, Amdur covers the dangers which I take as a reasonable explanation for why it has never been taught in a dojo context in my experience. One could argue that the average student doesn’t understand the significance and is that sense hidden, but in my experience most students get that the exercises improve stance and centering without explanation. The questions that I receive about it are usually on the details of form or the meaning of the kiai in the rowing exercise.

The idea that ukemi practice is under recognized as a way to build martial sensitivity and strength does not fit my experience. Serious students in the USAF are expected to take a lot of ukemi for their seniors and I don’t believe that any of them consider it to be a waste of time. That the reasons for ukemi are rarely stated explicitly doesn’t mean that its significance is hidden (at least for me).

Weapons training is perhaps a different matter. I have trained in suburi regularly for some time but I do not emphasis weapons in the classes that I teach. Yamada Sensei once described weapons training as “playing samurai”. I have done enough to understand that there is much more to it than that. A student in my dojo who is very experienced in karate and is now studying a koryu weapons system has told me that his weapons training his is replacement for sparing practice in that it refines his understanding of timing. I have not gone deep enough in paired weapons exercise to fully grasp what he is talking about. While I get benefit from my suburi practice, I have always felt an internal resistance to more weapons training that I can’t fully explain. I think that it is the idolatry of the physical weapon that bothers me. While a greatly admire the meditative focus of iaido practitioners, I don’t like the idea of having a live blade in my house. The scent of death is to strong for me. This in no way should be read as a criticism of those that pursue this kind of training, it is just not for me at least not now.

At the end of the Hidden in Plain Sight, I have only learned what I already knew. The only thing keeping me from greater understanding of the power of Aikido is more training. To fully realize my potential in Aikido I need to do solo training in breathing exercises and empty meditation. I need to preform rowing exercise for extended periods to really experience the internal changes that it offers. I need to spend more time on the mat taking falls and developing my understanding of timing with partners. This isn’t really news to me and I feel a certain sadness that I find it difficult to increase my training time. I am reluctant to take more time away from my family and follow O Sensei’s example. There is a cost to this that I’m not currently willing to bear and perhaps never will. On the other hand I know that some of my lack of training is lazyness that perhaps reading this book will inspire me to overcome in ways that don’t require sacrificing other priorities.

To be fair to Ellis Amdur, Hidden in Plain Sight demonstrates his substantial learning and a self knowledge that is admirable. He clearly has done detailed research both on and off the mat in very sophisticated budo. He understands well both the extent and the limits of his learning. I highly recommend reading this thought provoking book. My criticisms of his arguments are on the margins his accomplishments.